Debts of Gratitude

Over at the CBA National Magazine, Rebecca Bromwich has an interesting article reminding us of our debt of gratitude to the campaigners for women’s suffrage, and arguing that we owe it to their memory to vote it in the upcoming election. The first point is important and well-taken. The second, in my view, does not follow.

Prof. Bromwich points out that

The story of Canadian democracy is one in which a debt is owed to military men, yes, but it is also a story of people of courage in civilian life, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. It was not just soldiers on battlefields who won for us our democracy but we owe our democratic rights but also women suffragists, who undertook many years of struggle, were beaten, jailed, went on hunger strikes, carried out acts of civil disobedience, and even died, for their cause.

That’s very true, and the reminder is important. People who agree with prof. Bromwich that gratitude to those to whom “we owe our democratic rights” is a reason for voting are indeed apt to single out soldiers in that category. But if the right to vote was preserved, at least in part, on the battlefield, it was largely won elsewhere. The activists who obtained the extension of the franchise to groups excluded from it ― and women, of course, were by far the largest such group ― also deserve our admiration and appreciation. Prof. Bromwich names many of those who helped create “firsts” in women’s suffrage, but let me also mention Thérèse Casgrain and Idola Saint-Jean, two of the campaigners who saw to it that the women of Québec were finally able to vote in provincial elections, albeit a generation after they gained that right for federal elections.

And let me mention, too, other “people of courage in civilian life” to whom we also owe our democratic rights. For example the citizens of the riding of Charlevoix who, in 1876, braved social reproof and religious condemnation to bear witness to the Catholic Church’s campaign of intimidation against those who dared exercise their franchise in accordance with their own conscience rather than that of their priests and bishops ― a story told in the report of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brassard v. Langevin, (1877) 1 SCR 145, and one I summarized here. And spare a thought, too, for the legislators who, even if too late, acceded to the suffragist campaigners’ demands. If we can lionize judges who recognize rights from the security of their life-tenured offices, we should do no less for legislators who put their career on the line for doing it.

All that said, unlike prof. Bromwich, I do not think that awareness of these debts of gratitude ought to “entice Canadians – all Canadians – to actually use their right to vote in the federal election set to take place” this fall. I would not support “a resolution that connects the centennial anniversaries of milestones in the achievement of women’s suffrage in Western Canada with the imperative for all Canadians to vote in the federal election.” I do not believe that our debts of gratitude to those who helped obtain or preserve our right to vote can translate into some sort of moral obligation to exercise this right.

Voting, needless to say, is not the only one of our rights that was took the courage and sacrifices of many people to be recognized. Yet one never hears that we owe it to those who won or defended these rights to actually exercise them. It is never said, for instance, that we ought to honour, say, Frank Roncarelli by attending worship (even at an atheist Church if we are so inclined!). There are very good reasons for honouring him, of course, but not only is it not incumbent on every citizen who benefits from his sacrifices to do so, but even if one is wishes to honour him, this can be done in any number of ways. Is there something special about the way in which the way in which the right to vote was won that compels all of us to honour those who won it by exercising it? I don’t think I have ever seen an argument to that effect.

There are, of course, other arguments in favour of a duty to vote. Prof. Bromwich mentions one of them when she says that “[t]he exercise of the right to vote is crucial for the legitimacy and healthy functioning of democracy.” (I do not find this or any other such argument persuasive, but that’s a matter I’ll take up in other posts as we approach the election.) However, these arguments are independent from the one based on gratitude. If it were true that we must vote in order to preserve a legitimate and well-functioning democracy, that would be true even democracy were the only political regime the world had ever known and there was nobody to thank for universal suffrage.

While I’m not convinced that this is a matter of duty rather than “merely” of civic virtue, we should of course be grateful to and honour those to whom we owe our rights. In the case of the right to vote, it is important to remember that our debt is not only to defended our democracy against totalitarianism, but also to those who helped create this democracy in the first place. But there are many ways to honour these people. Exercising the franchise is one of them, but not the only one. Our gratitude cannot ground a duty to discharge our debt to them in this specific way.

4 thoughts on “Debts of Gratitude

  1. Pingback: Must We Vote? | Double Aspect

  2. Pingback: Is It Legit? | Double Aspect

  3. Pingback: A Civic Choice | Double Aspect

  4. Pingback: About not voting - Policy Options

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